We know one thing: funding for a digital only children’s television channel. As reported previously in both Crikey and The Australian, the ABC hoped to get funding for this in the last budget, but failed. Nevertheless insiders seemed confident at the time that it would come eventually – and now it seems likely to form the basis of an election announcement.

But is this all there is? What else is on the list? What else might be announced? I have tried to draw ABC Managing Director Mark Scott on this in recent days without success, so what follows is my supposition only.

Given that the national broadcaster is now freed from the silly genre restrictions that in the past have inhibited its digital television presence, a great deal might be possible.

In this submission, there is just a hint that as commercial channels press to be freed of obligations to produce Australian content, they could choose to pay the ABC to pick up their social responsibilities. This might in time make the ABC the natural home for comparatively well funded quality Australian drama, as well as children’s content and documentaries – perhaps in time even journalism.

Another prospect one hears gossiped about is the idea of a Citizens’ digital television channel, with accompanying online presence, devoted to televising Parliament, including parliamentary inquiries, but the rest of the time experimenting with engaging the public in interactive political discussion.

The ABC’s existing website is showing what could be done, as is another not for profit venture, the Australian Research Council funded UD07 sites. Blogger Mark Bahnisch has surveyed other “gift economy” election blogs here and plans to do more.

To put this in a broader context, the ABC and its potential is one of the things that makes the likely course of media futures in Australia different from that of the US.

There is a growing trend in the US to look to the not-for-profit sector to bridge the gap between the decline of quality newspaper journalism, and the hoped-for development of new business models that will, as Journalism Professor Philip Meyer has put it, find “profit in truth, vigilance, and social responsibility.”

Meyer, a pioneer in computer assisted reporting and Professor of Journalism at University of Carolina, is the man who literally wrote the book on the challenges facing newspapers, although at the same time he did convincing research showing that those newspapers who kept faith with their communities by providing well resourced, in touch newsrooms did better economically in the long term. The others, he said, were “mining their credibility”.

In Australia journalists tend to poo-poo suggestions that any serious media could be non commercial. Nevertheless in this recent Columbia Journalism Review article, the long list of not-for-profits doing very serious work should give pause for thought.

Australia, of course doesn’t have the US’s history of corporate philanthropy, but we do have the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and the strong history of government-funded broadcasting that it represents. Apropos of which, this other CJR article canvasses the question of what the USA Government should “do” to support media.

In Australia, the answer would be comparatively simple: more funding for the ABC.

None of which is likely to melt hearts in Canberra. But given that public support for the ABC – particularly in the regions – has more than survived the culture wars, watch for largesse and promises of largesse from both sides of politics.

Peter Fray

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